The text of the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District current bond measure, Measure CK, is misleading and should have been rewritten, opponents claim. The bond proponents, meanwhile, insist the language is legal and meets state-law requirements.
The measure asks the voters to approve $7.5 million in general obligation bonds to renovate or modernize Agua Dulce and Meadowlark Elementary schools, High Desert Middle School and Vazquez High School, plus the charter school that currently sits on the site of Acton School that the district still owns. The list of projects includes upgrading electrical systems, painting, lighting, sewer and septic systems; fix, repair or replace leaky roofs, air conditioning, heating and ventilation; get new security cameras, computers, hardware and software; construct or improve athletic facilities, bring everything up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards; and repair, replace or improve paving, roadways, access ramps and landscaping.
The voters need to pass the measure with a 55-percent majority to enact it.
“If it doesn’t pass, the community is missing out on a huge opportunity,” Superintendent Larry King said.
Despite its enrollment numbers of just 10,016 students as of 2016-17, King says the district is suffering from overcrowding, the result of having to close Agua Dulce due to low enrollment and turning Meadowlark into grades K-4 and High Desert into grades 5-8. The plan was to reopen Acton but the state didn’t allow it, King said.
Steve Petzold, principal officer of The Center for Truth in School Bond Measures, is the bond measure’s primary opponent, having written the argument against the measure and the rebuttal to the argument in favor of it. He raised several concerns over the course of several interviews.
“This (school) board has an obligation to the voters to give them the facts up front so they can make an informed decision,” Petzold said.
First, Petzold claimed, the text of the bond question violates Proposition 39 (2000) because it requires “a specific list of school projects to be funded,” but the current list is vague. King says the district’s San Francisco-based bond counsel, Jones Hall, advised on the wording. “We did not get super specific because we wanted bond flexibility,” King said.
To which Petzold replied, “It’s very honest, but how the hell can you make it general?”
Bill Kadi, a Jones Hall shareholder who said he was one of a team that advised, wrote and reviewed the measure, said he is satisfied it meets all statutory requirements.
Petzold also said the language does not meet the requirements of Section 13119 of the state Elections Code that requires the ballot question to be written, “Shall the measure (stating the nature thereof) be adopted?” The bond question is not written in that format, but Kadi said it’s not applicable because it’s a bond, not a measure.
The law also says the wording applies, “If the proposed ordinance imposes a tax…” Kadi disagreed, saying, “We don’t believe it’s applicable to a school bond.”
Richard Michael, who runs the website Big Bad Bonds and spoke to Petzold about Measure CK, said county clerks violate this law all the time. His website lists 25 of them, including Los Angeles County’s Dean Logan. Petzold sent Logan a letter, a copy of which he provided the Gazette, in which he lists six examples of how the bond measure isn’t written according to state law. One of those is Section 15122 of the Education Code that requires the words “Bonds-Yes” and “Bonds-No” in the ballot question, which are currently absent.
Petzold also forwarded an email from Julane Whalen, constituent services coordinator with the County Registrar-Recorder/Clerk’s office. “The Code does not compel this Office to take any action based on the demands listed in your letter,” she wrote. “At this point, we have reviewed these requests and no further action by this Office will be taken at this time.”
This didn’t surprise Michael. “Nobody is going to unless somebody sues,” he said.
Kadi said the final text would include the required wording, although the version currently available on Michael’s website doesn’t.
A final concern with the wording is that the ballot question says the bonds would be sold “at legal rates” instead of listing the actual interest rate, which Michael said is currently a maximum of 12 percent. He thinks the rate isn’t mentioned because the bond measure is more likely to be rejected if people see the interest rate. His research shows only four of 1,243 bond measures since 2001 stated the interest rate, and all failed.
John Greenlee, managing director at Emeryville-based Caldwell Flores Winters, Inc. who also advised on the bond, said the “legal rate” is currently 12 percent.
This isn’t the first bond measure the district’s voters have had to consider. They previously approved Measure CF in 2008, which allowed for $13 million in bonds that allowed the district to primarily replace portable classrooms with permanent ones.
Petzold said that some of the issues he has with Measure CF affects the district’s credibility regarding Measure CK. For example, Proposition 39 requires a school board to conduct annual, independent financial and performance audits until all bond funds have been spent to ensure that the bond funds have been used only for the projects listed in the measure. On the district website, an audit is combined for the years 2009-15, along with audits for 2016 and 2017.
Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Lynn David said these were done before she arrived a year ago and doesn’t know why they were combined. “All audits are clean audits,” meaning all funds have been spent only for the purposes stated in the bond measure.
Petzold also wondered why Measure CF was for $13 million, but latest audit says $15.9 million. Greenlee said that’s because the bonds were capital appreciation bonds in which no interest was initially paid. When the payments come due, accountants list the interest as additional principal, he said.
Petzold also pointed out that Measure CF’s estimated property taxes was $25 per $100,000 of assessed value but in reality became $38 per $100,000 of assessed value. Greenlee said that since bonds are issued over 30 years, the assessed value has to be estimated because it’s impossible to predict what will happen over 30 years. In this case, the demise in the real estate market affected the value of homes, so the dollar amount went up.